On Root The Best Explanation - Bar None

Oddly enough, hasbara is one of the trickiest expressions to explain. But sometimes one picture is worth 1,000 words.

Jeremy Benstein
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Jeremy Benstein

Titi-lating is what the pundits should have said. Stunning Ethiopian-born Israeli beauty queen Yityish Aynaw, known by her nickname 'Titi,' wowed New York audiences and was instantly dubbed Israel's "potential hasbara blockbuster."

Previously, in the beautiful Israeli female spokespeople department, it was blonde, blue-eyed uber-model Bar Refaeli who put the bar in Israel's hasbara. But perhaps we are moving into a post-Refaelite mode, where there's room for other hues, and other views, of Israeli society in all its diversity.

As evidenced by the above quote, hasbara is a Hebrew word that is nuanced enough that it isn't simply translated, but is used in all its original foreignness in English-language journalism. Hasbara comes from the word lehasbir which means "to explain;" but hasbara is anything but a simple explanation.

We'll explain that, and other expressions of this root s-b-r, whose core meaning is "reason," "opine" or "express," in fields as diverse as politics, religion, and mathematics.

Yea, Israel!

Hasbara is Israel's unique brand of PR, and is comprised of equal parts advocacy, propaganda, product branding, and cheerleading. Its goal is to present Israel's "case" in order to combat Israel's detractors, and enlist understanding and support. Whenever some event occurs that potentially will tarnish Israel's image, or an anti-Israel spin is spun in the media, one can almost hear Ricky Ricardo of the old "Lucille Ball" TV show calling up the Foreign Ministry, saying, "Israel, you got some 'splainin' to do!"

In case you were wondering, not every clarification or elucidation is an elaborate act of self-justification: the regular, non-politicized word meaning "explanation" is hesber.

To life!

The root s-b-r has a rich history in Jewish sources. A sevara ("b" softening to "v") is a "reasoned opinion" based on logic or common sense, as opposed to decisions based on traditions or sources. The verb sover/savur means to "be of the opinion that something is the case."

So, for instance, if you've ever been at a Jewish Sabbath or holiday meal, where the traditional blessing over the wine is said, the one doing the blessing generally invites assent of those gathered with, "savri maranan!" "Gentlemen, by your leave!" (Gender specificity in the original). Permission is often then granted with a rousing cheer of Lechayim! – which needs no translation.

What's the chance of that?

But there are other common Israeli terms from this root as well. If say, the price of an object is savir, it is "reasonable." But when, for instance, the Israeli government slapped an additional tax on beer, many felt the act was bilti-savir, "unreasonable," not to mention the resultant exorbitant prices for a brew.
The noun form is sevirut, which can mean "reasonableness" or "likelihood." While the average human lifespan now runs to the late seventies, the chance of President Shimon Peres, who turned 90 this week amid much fanfare (and hasbara coups), living to the mythic 120 seems to have a sevirut g'vohah, a "high likelihood" of occurring.

This then gives us histabrut, meaning "probability," also referring to that branch of mathematics dealing with the statistical study of chance. The verb that comes from this, mistaber, can mean "probable" or "likely," but actually has a fine nuance that sums up in one word what it takes a whole English sentence to say.
Example: "So, Israel with all its prejudices and internal schisms can elect an Ethiopian beauty queen!?" Response: Mistaber Meaning: "It certainly seems that way," or: "yes, that is indeed how it has turned out," or "that is in fact the case, whether we thought it likely or not."

Of course, if this ends up not helping Israel's hasbara efforts, it will be a case of ifcha mistabra, an Aramaism (the first word related to Hebrew hafuch, "backwards" or "upside-down") that means "we expected one thing, and got exactly the opposite!"

Now does that make sense?

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Refaeli. Puts the "bar" in hasbara.Credit: AP

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